All posts by Rory O'Neill

Plan for smoke-free prisons a union victory

A UK government announcement that smoking will be banned in all prisons in Wales and four in south-west England from next year has been hailed as a ‘victory for health and safety’ by the prison officers’ union POA. The phased roll-out, which will eventually see all jails in England and Wales go smoke-free, will  first see smoking barred inside buildings at all open prisons in England and Wales from November 2015.

PJ McParlin, national chair of the POA, said: “This is a crucial victory for health and safety in the workplace for prison officers. Prison officers have been denied the basic protections from second-hand smoke that other workers have had for almost a decade. We have repeatedly raised at every level of the prison service our members unnecessary exposure to a known health risk and now at last vital workplace protection is to be set in place.”

Passive (or ‘secondhand’) smoking is linked to higher rates of cancer (and is a top rated IARC group 1 carcinogen), heart disease and other health conditions.

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European Commission refuses access to glyphosate assessment

The European Commission has refused to make available the risk assessment report on glyphosate prepared for the European Food Safety Authority. Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used herbicide and the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup. The risk assessment will determine glyphosate’s renewed authorisation in the European Union.

The pesticide lobby is pressing Europe to follow the United States in increasing allowable glyphosate exposure levels. In a letter to the German NGO Testbiotech last month, the Commission stated that the report is confidential and there is “no overriding public interest” in making it accessible.

However, a report earlier this year from the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” – described by global food and farming union federation IUF as “presumably a compelling public interest.”

IUF adds: “The Commission’s ongoing refusal to make available its risk assessment data violates a 2013 ruling by the European Court of Justice requiring public disclosure.” In the light of the new IARC cancer rating, the UK TUC warned this year that because of the unquestionable risks posed by glyphosate, which can also causes short- and long-term skin, eye and respiratory problems and serious liver and kidney damage, it is “necessary to try to prevent any workers coming into contact with glyphosate”.

Scotland urged to plug asbestos loophole

Scotland’s groundbreaking asbestos compensation laws need an immediate tweak to stop the most seriously affected individuals losing out, occupational health researchers have said.

The University of Stirling team said Scotland leads the way in protecting the rights of people affected by asbestos, but in certain circumstances claimants are poorly served by the current arrangements. Their research found people who suffer from pleural plaques, an asbestos-related chest condition, are being forced to second-guess their chances of subsequently developing a potentially fatal condition such as lung cancer or mesothelioma. Pleural plaques victims must choose between a smaller provisional payout enabling them to return to court if then affected by a more serious condition, or accept a full and final payment, ending all legal liability.

“It is perfectly understandable that the victim when faced with such a choice would choose the larger compensation award, but they cannot possibly grasp the potential effects of a more serious illness upon them and their family,” said lead researcher Tommy Gorman, from the University of Stirling’s Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group. “The Scottish Parliament has produced vital legislation in recent years to address the devastating impact of asbestos-related conditions and I believe our report provides a compelling argument for the need to move quickly to resolve negative impacts on claimants and their families.”

The team suggest one solution would be to give pleural plaques stand-alone status, in line with similar approaches taken across Europe. This would enable victims to receive an award through an alternative payment system and pursue future court claims in relation to a subsequently emerging more serious condition.

Elaine Russell of personal injury law firm Irwin Mitchell welcomed the Stirling report. “The proposed changes would bring Scotland in line with many other countries across Europe and ultimately increase access to justice for those who have been negligently exposed to this deadly material.”

The Stirling report was presented to an 8 September meeting of MSPs from all parties, government ministers, groups representing those with asbestos-related diseases, health and safety groups, and trade union officials and personal injury lawyers.

Samsung pressed on cancers foundation

A broad group of civil society organisations from Asia, Europe, Africa, North America and South America is urging Korean electronics giant Samsung to deliver justice to those harmed by chemical exposures in its factories.

The letter to Kwon oh hyun, CEO of Samsung Electronics, says Samsung should abide by the recent recommendations of a high profile mediation committee. The committee, set up to arbitrate between the company and occupational disease victims and their families, agreed Samsung should fund an independent non-profit foundation and resolve all outstanding issues arising from the cluster of occupational diseases such as leukaemia and lymphoma among Samsung workers.

Signatories to the letter to Samsung include the global union IndustriALL, campaign groups the International Campaign for Responsible Technology and Good Electronics, labour rights organisation the Asia Monitor Resource Centre and acclaimed academic Noam Chomsky.

The letter states: “The key to assuring effective prevention strategies in the future is through the proposed foundation, made up of a wide range of independent experts who can help you become a respected leader in occupational and environmental health, matching your leadership in global technology.”

It adds: “If Samsung insists on controlling all of these key decisions by yourselves, you will fail to achieve the acceptance and labour peace that you profess to desire.”

New report confirms work breast cancer risks

A first of its kind review of the scientific literature on women workers and breast cancer has uncovered more than 20 occupations associated with considerably increased risk of breast cancer compared to the risk for the general population.

“Because workers are often exposed to carcinogenic or toxic substances at regular doses for long periods of time, they are the modern day canaries in the coal mine,” said Jeanne Rizzo, president and CEO of San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund, which undertook the study. “We are confident that there is a better way forward, and that a cancer-free economy is within our grasp. It’s time to put breast cancer out of work.”

The study report, Working Women and Breast Cancer: The State of the Evidence, is the product of more than two years of work and is a review of most of the scientific studies that have been published in the past 25 years. The study found a link between breast cancer and a number of workplace exposures including solvents, pesticides, ionizing radiation and other toxic materials. There also was an association with night shift work.

The report concluded: “Research is inadequate, but there is enough to raise alarm about women’s work, occupational exposures and breast cancer. At the same time, policies are insufficient to protect worker health.”

Among the 20 plus occupations with considerably increased risk of breast cancer compared to the general population were:

  • First responders (police, firefighters, military personnel) – Up to 2.5 times higher risk
  • Food and beverage production workers – Up to 5 times higher risk
  • Hairdressers and cosmetologists – Up to 5 times higher risk
  • Manufacturing and machinery workers – Up to 3 times higher risk
  • Doctors, physicians and other medical workers excluding nurses – Up to 3.5 times greater risk

The report recommended that women should be included in occupational studies, noting they have “historically been excluded… which means that health issues that predominantly affect women, including breast cancer, have been at best understudied and at worst ignored.”

Responding to the findings, UK national union federation the TUC called for urgent action to address occupational breast cancer risks in women. TUC head of health and safety, Hugh Robertson, said: “This is a damning report and shows that much more must be done to protect women from exposure to chemicals at work.”

He said in July this year the TUC had asked the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK’s official health and safety regulator, “to produce new guidance on night work to help protect women from breast cancer, but this report shows that more needs to be done across the board to reduce the risk from work.”

BCF infographic page 26

Dick Clapp, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health and a member of the President’s panel on occupational and environmental cancer, welcomed the report.

He said: “The authors have produced a comprehensive and thoroughly documented review of the state of the evidence that should be immensely valuable to advocates, students and policy-makers. The Breast Cancer Fund deserves enormous credit for their leadership and vision in illuminating this important part of the breast cancer story.”

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European Commission blamed for 100,000 work cancers each year

The European Commission’s drive to simplify legislation for businesses has come under fire from trade unions for blocking EU laws that could save thousands of lives per year. Laurent Vogel, a senior researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), said that more than 100,000 workers were dying from work-related cancers each year, and blamed the European Commission for inaction.

Vogel is citing official data coming from the EU health and safety agency, EU-OSHA. And he said their fatalities toll is probably an underestimate. “100,000 deaths could be perfectly avoided. And the reality is above this figure, because it does not include the cases of cancers caused by endocrine disruptors,” said Vogel, speaking at a July 2015 EurActiv Institute workshop.

The Commission’s push for ‘Better Regulation’ is effectively blocking attempts to protect workers who suffer from exposure to toxic chemicals in their daily jobs, he added. “We have been discussing the revision of the carcinogens directive for the last ten years,” he said, claiming that Better Regulation “has completely paralysed the process”.

He denouncing a “cynical show” where business lobby groups request the Commission to conduct endless impact assessment studies before any new legislation can be considered.

“The recent scandal on the endocrine disruptors policy is a clear example of that,” Vogel said. “It gives you the real meaning of the nice words ‘better regulation’. They are used to paralyse any regulatory initiative when industrial lobbies just ask you to do so.” He said there has been “a dramatic increase” in breast, prostate and other cancers linked with workplace exposure to endocrine disruptors. Vogel stressed that binding limit values on exposure to some chemicals “are not sufficient” to protect workers from exposure to hazardous substances. “For instance, if we take the existing binding limit values, even if they are fully respected, they are still causing cancers,” he said.

International cancer study casts doubt on chemical exposure standards

Chemical exposure standards “should be revisited” because low level exposures to a mix of substances which individually might be harmless can together present a cancer risk, a major study has concluded.

The Halifax Project, a high-profile taskforce formed in 2013 by the international organisation Getting to Know Cancer, involved 174 scientists in 28 countries and investigated 85 chemicals that were not considered to be carcinogenic to humans.

The paper published in the journal Carcinogenesis notes: “Our current understanding of the biology of cancer suggests that the cumulative effects of (non-carcinogenic) chemicals acting on different pathways that are relevant to cancer, and on a variety of cancer-relevant systems, organs, tissues and cells could conspire to produce carcinogenic synergies that will be overlooked using current risk assessment methods. Cumulative risk assessment methods that are based on ‘common mechanisms of toxicity’ or common ‘modes of action’ may therefore be underestimating cancer-related risks.”

It concludes “current regulations in many countries (that consider only the cumulative effects of exposures to individual carcinogens that act via a common sequence of key events and processes on a common target/tissue to produce cancer) should be revisited.”

Lead researcher William Goodson III, from San Francisco’s California Pacific Medical Center, said his results show one-at-a-time testing is out of date and must be modernised. “Every day we are exposed to an environmental ‘chemical soup’, so we need testing that evaluates the effects of our ongoing exposure to these chemical mixtures,” he said.

New UK breast cancer charity urged to recognise risks

A newly merged breast cancer charity has been urged to acknowledge the environmental and occupational links to breast cancer and to back calls for prevention.

An open letter signed by concerned organisations and scientists expresses the hope that the merger between Breakthrough Breast Cancer and the Breast Cancer Campaign will prompt “progressive changes to breast cancer prevention policies.” The signatories of the letter to Breast Cancer Now, the new organisation headed by Baroness Delyth Morgan and which describes itself as ‘the UK’s leading breast cancer research charity’, include From Pink to Prevention, Breast Cancer Consortium, Challenge Breast Cancer Scotland, the Hazards Campaign and the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL).

The letter addressed to Baroness Morgan asks Breast Cancer Now to review its line on the incidence, risk and prevention of breast cancer, noting “we hope that future prevention policies will include the previously downgraded or overlooked roles of environmental and occupational risk factors in breast cancer”.

The letter adds that the organisation should “use its public and political influence to shape a new vision for breast cancer policy”, recognising the environmental and occupational links to breast cancer and promoting action to prevent exposures. It expresses concern that the organisations forming the new charity have consistently opposed precautionary policies to limit these exposures, and have downplayed the risks of substances including endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).

Sarah Woolley, a shop steward and executive council member with the UK bakers’ union BFAWU, urged trade unionists to back the campaign. Writing on the union’s website she said by “spreading the word and holding the government, manufacturers, companies and cancer research charities to account for their rather worrying lack of action and acknowledgement of EDCs, we can help stop breast cancer before it starts, rather than concentrating solely on treating it once we have it.”

 

‘Slow-motion’ tragedy for American workers

The power of industry to stall or stop lifesaving workplace rules in the US has been exposed in a Center for Public Integrity (CPI) investigation. CPI cites silica – which the federal safety regulator OSHA says threatens 2.2 million workers in the country, and which can cause cancer, deadly lung diseases and other serious health conditions – as a “striking example” of the government’s failure to properly regulate toxic substances in American workplaces.

“The silica rule still isn’t finished. If it is enacted despite industry protests, it will be only the 37th health standard issued by the agency in its 44-year history,” CPI notes. It says this is an ignominious record given the human and economic costs of work-related disease in the United States.

According to a widely cited University of California, Davis, study, an estimated 53,000 people died in the US in 2007 from on-the-job exposures – outnumbering those killed in suicides, motor vehicle accidents, falls or homicides. More than 400,000 others got sick as a result of their jobs. The price tag: an estimated $58 billion. Federal safety regulator OSHA puts the annual toll at more than 50,000 deaths and 190,000 illnesses.

CPI’s 18-month investigation “found that the epidemic of occupational disease in America isn’t merely the product of neglect or misconduct by employers. It’s the predictable result of a bifurcated system of hazard regulation – one for the general public and another, far weaker, for workers. Risks of cancer and other illnesses considered acceptable at a workplace wouldn’t be tolerated outside of it.”

OSHA doesn’t try to put a happy spin on its largely 44-year-old workplace chemical-exposure limits: The operative word, the agency says, is “antiquated” – simply complying “will not guarantee that workers will be safe.” In 2013 the agency launched a side-by-side comparison with other standards, some discretionary and some required only in California, to urge employers to voluntarily rely on more protective guidelines.

 

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IARC links more pesticides to cancer

Three pesticides that have been heavily used in both agricultural and non-agricultural applications have been linked to cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluated the carcinogenicity of the insecticides lindane and DDT and the herbicide 2,4-D. An IARC working group of 26 experts from 13 countries classified the insecticide lindane as carcinogenic to humans, giving it the highest Group 1 risk rating.

The experts, who published their findings online on 22 June 2015 in The Lancet Oncology, concluded there was sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of lindane for non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). The IARC group noted that large epidemiological studies of agricultural exposures in the USA and Canada showed a 60 per cent increased risk of NHL in those exposed to lindane.

The insecticide DDT was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on sufficient evidence that DDT causes cancer in experimental animals and limited evidence of its carcinogenicity in humans. Epidemiological studies found positive associations between exposure to DDT and NHL, testicular cancer, and liver cancer.

The herbicide 2,4-D was classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on inadequate evidence in humans and limited evidence in experimental animals.

Lindane – which was used in agriculture, wood preservatives, disinfectant ‘fog’ bombs, and lice and scabies treatments – and DDT are no longer approved for use in the UK. However, workers with historic exposures may still be at risk of developing related cancers. And DDT is still used in control of insect-borne diseases like malaria.

Use of the herbicide 2,4-D is still allowed in the UK. It has found favour with local authorities for weed control on pavements and in parks and other public areas.